A potent form of heroin, known as black tar, is flooding the market in Southern California and could signal an alarming trend in the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Deaths from heroin overdoses have quadrupled in the U.S. from 2002 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The flow of black tar from Mexico has inundated the U.S. and can be found as close to home as the tents of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
In a recent investigation by VICE News, reporters took an in-depth look into how the business of heroin operates in Mexico, and how the Mexican government is trying to combat the problem. VICE News producer Daniel Hernández spoke with Take Two about his experience following the impacts of black tar from the poppy fields of Guerrero all the way to the streets of L.A.
In Guerrero, Mexico’s second-poorest state, Hernández spoke to farmers and members of the Mexican military tasked with destroying acres of opium-producing flowers.
One farmer, speaking in Spanish, described the production of heroin and the role that local farmers play in a complex web:
“We just sell what we grow here in town. The guy who processes it is the one who gets the most benefit. Not us, the farmers. We don’t have any choice because the government doesn’t provide us with any jobs. How are we supposed to make a living?”
This is a region where there’s “no cell phone coverage, no police presence, [and] there were armed groups,” Hernández says.
Still, the Mexican military has made attempts to stymie the creation of heroin, with soldiers hacking away with machetes and burning piles of poppy plants.
“The army comes in, might destroy a couple of acres, but just over the ridge here or just over the river there, there are 10 more acres. There’s just so much of it being grown everywhere,” he says.
As for the lives of the people in these drug-producing villages, they are much like any other in Mexico.
“Their lives are very modest,” Hernández says.
The difference is that here they live under an umbrella of fear that a rival cartel or group will infiltrate them at any moment.
That’s exactly what happened in one remote town that Hernández visited. By the time he got there along with the required “armed federal agents” — which he says were essentially guys in plain clothes with big guns — the town had been ravaged by violence and turned into a ghost town:
“There’s peace in a little village that is a drug-producing village, but at any minute, another group, another gang can come in and say, ‘OK now we’re in charge, and if you don’t listen to us, we’re going to burn down houses, we’re going to kill the men, rape the women.’ All things that happened in that town.”
Meanwhile, the drugs that are a result of the farming done in the remote, poor regions of Mexico eventually make their way to the U.S. and into the tents of those living on Skid Row.
“This drug has really just flooded the country, and it’s everywhere, everywhere, everywhere,” Hernández says. “I think there is a huge challenge, and just a huge lack of awareness of how integral Mexico is to the United States’ current opioid problem.”
The Drug Enforcement Agency is often playing catch-up in their attempts to put a stop to the flow of heroin into the country, which can be difficult.
“This is a drug that will get you hooked the second you try it. It was so easy to get, and that was, again, pretty alarming,” he says.
Watch the VICE News investigation into this world of heroin that keeps Mexican farmers living in fear — and some of the homeless on Skid Row shooting up.